Rainbow cookies

Michelle Russo holds a tray of rainbow cookies

Michelle Russo holds a tray of rainbow cookies at Patsy's & Son Bakery in Lindenhurst. (Jan. 21, 2012) (Credit: Heather Walsh)

If Long Island had a flag, it would be pink, white and green, with narrow bands of chocolate brown on the top and bottom. It would, indeed, look like a rainbow cookie.

That neon-hued confection, pride of a thousand Italian-American pastry shops, long ago busted its bakery bonds and can now be found at local supermarkets, delis and even at Costco.

Delicious, perhaps, but the rainbow cookie is, to butcher Winston Churchill's observation about Russia, a riddle sandwiched between a mystery and an enigma. First, it is not really a cookie, but a thin slice of a dense, almond-paste-enriched, three-layer spongecake. And it does not really resemble a rainbow, which, the last time I looked, had seven colors, none of them white. (Some bakeries call the rainbow cookie a seven-layer cookie, according "layer" status to the two coats of jam between the sponge and the chocolate icing on top and bottom. By this logic, a seven-layer cake becomes a 15-layer cake. Case closed.)

None of this detracts from rainbow cookies' popularity. At Patsy's & Son bakery (established in 1955) in Lindenhurst, owner Frank DiMonda estimates he sells nearly 100 pounds of them a week. His rainbows, $12 a pound, are classic, with layers of white, deep pink and electric green separated by raspberry jam and thickly coated with dark chocolate.

Three years ago, DiMonda founded rainbowcookies.com, a website that ships them all over the world. "I kept getting calls from customers who had moved away," DiMonda says, "and it turned out they couldn't get rainbow cookies in South Carolina." DiMonda has shipped his cookies to all 50 states and to soldiers stationed in Afghanistan.

Kathy Barnosky of South Huntington is a fan of the rainbow cookies at Fiorello Dolce in Huntington Village. "My daughter's marrying a guy from Newport Beach, and we introduced his whole family to the cookies; now we have to send them to California."

Gerard Fioravanti, owner of Fiorello Dolce, was born in the Bronx and raised on the rainbow. But his culinary training, and his tenure at Manhattan's great patisserie Ceci Cela, made a French pâtissier out of him.

When he opened Fiorello Dolce in 2006, he didn't plan on making rainbow cookies. Overwhelming customer demand scotched that plan, but before he caved, he tweaked the recipe to yield a sponge with a distinctive silken texture. Between the layers he spreads apricot jam, which, he says, "really brings out the flavor of the almond." He finishes with a thick coating of not-too-sweet Belgian chocolate "that brings the whole thing together." (Fiorello Dolce's rainbows are $18 a pound.)

Of all the rainbow cookies I sampled recently, Michelangelo LaMendola's were the most delicate. At his 20-year-old Malverne Pastry Shop, LaMendola uses as little food coloring as possible; the layers are subtly tinted. Chocolate is applied sparingly, and the sponge has so much almond paste, it really can't be classified as cake.

It's commonly believed that the rainbow cookie originated not in Italy, but among Italian immigrants in America. LaMendola was born in Sicily, however, and he has always believed the cookie was, too.

Mary Taylor Simeti, whose book "Pomp and Sustenance" (recently republished as "Sicilian Food" by Grub Street Press) is an authoritative volume on the cuisine of Sicily, only recently saw a photograph of the confection in question. "I am fascinated to see the rainbow cookie, an amazing example of what happens to food in transit," she remarked.

Simeti's best guess is that it is a descendant of what is known in Sicily as "gelato di campagna" -- country ice cream -- slices cut from a large loaf of tricolor nougat that "look like ice cream, but you can take it to the country with you because it doesn't need refrigeration." In her book, Simeti describes gelato di campagna as "striped in bilious pink, white and chartreuse" -- a pretty good description of the rainbow cookie.

Mary Ann Esposito, host of PBS' "Ciao Italia" and author, most recently, of "Ciao Italia Family Classics" (St. Martins, $40), grew up in Buffalo, where she knew rainbows as "Neapolitan cookies," the colors of which "were supposed to remind you of the Italian flag." Working with Simeti's hypothesis, she theorized that Sicilian immigrants who brought the recipe with them "did not have access to the same ingredients they found in Italy" and "translated" the almond nougat into layers of almond-paste-rich cake.

Gelato di campagna, notes Simeti, was a specialty of the professional confectioner, not the home cook. Likewise, rainbow cookie production is hardly a piece of cake: The three individual layers must be coated with jam, stacked and weighted overnight, then iced with chocolate and, no mean feat, neatly sliced. Baking enthusiasts: Give it a try. Nonbaking Long Islanders can rest easy in the knowledge that they are probably no more than five miles from the nearest rainbow cookie. 

 

RAINBOW COOKIES

This recipe (for seven-layer cookies), from epicurious.com, appeared in the December 2005 issue of Gourmet. It's not terribly difficult, but between all the cooling and chilling and waiting, you'll need to figure on at least 11 hours from beginning to end. On her website, smittenkitchen.com, Deb Perelman has posted great photos of the recipe in progress; she also notes that the cookies are much easier to cut when frozen. 

4 large eggs, separated

1 cup sugar

1 (8-ounce) can almond paste

2 1/2 sticks (1 1/4 cups) unsalted butter, softened

1 teaspoon almond extract

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

25 drops red food coloring

25 drops green food coloring

1 (12-ounce) jar apricot preserves, heated, strained and divided in half

7 ounces fine-quality bittersweet chocolate (not unsweetened), chopped1. Put oven rack in middle position, preheat oven to 350. Butter a 13-by-9-inch baking pan, line with waxed paper, leaving a 2-inch overhang on 2 ends, then butter paper.

2. Beat egg whites in a standing mixer fitted with whisk attachment at medium-high speed until they just hold stiff peaks. Add 1/4 cup sugar a little at a time, beating at high speed until whites hold stiff, slightly glossy peaks. Transfer to another bowl.

3. Switch to paddle attachment, then beat together almond paste and remaining 3/4 cup sugar until well blended, about 3 minutes. Add butter and beat until pale and fluffy, about 3 more minutes. Add egg yolks and almond extract and beat until well combined, about 2 minutes. Reduce speed to low, then add flour and salt, and mix until just combined.

4. Fold half of egg white mixture into almond mixture to lighten, then fold in remaining whites gently but thoroughly.

5. Divide batter among 3 bowls. Stir red food coloring into one and green food coloring into another, leaving third batch plain. Set white batter aside. Chill green batter, covered. Pour pink batter into prepared pan, spread evenly with offset spatula (layer will be about 1/4 inch thick). Bake red layer 8 to 10 minutes, until just set. (Important: undercook it.)

6. Using paper overhang, transfer pink layer to a rack to cool for about 15 minutes. Clean pan, again line it with waxed paper, then butter paper. Bake white layer in prepared pan until just set. As white layer bakes, bring green batter to room temperature. Transfer white layer to a rack to cool. Then prepare pan as before, and bake green batter the same way. Transfer green layer to a rack to cool.

7. When all layers are cool, invert green onto a waxed-paper-lined large baking sheet. Discard paper from layer and spread with half the preserves. Invert white on top of green layer, discarding paper. Spread with remaining preserves. Invert red layer on top of white layer and discard waxed paper.

8. Cover with plastic, weight with large baking pan. Chill at least 8 hours.

9. Remove weight and plastic wrap. Bring layers to room temperature. Melt chocolate in a double boiler or a metal bowl set over a saucepan of barely simmering water, stirring until smooth. Remove from heat. Keep chocolate over water.

10. Trim edges of assembled layers with a long, serrated knife. Quickly spread half of chocolate in a thin layer on top of cake. Chill, uncovered, until chocolate is firm, about 15 minutes. Cover with another sheet of waxed paper and place another baking sheet on top, then invert cake onto sheet and remove paper. Quickly spread with remaining chocolate. Chill until firm, about 30 minutes. Cut lengthwise into 4 strips. Cut strips crosswise into 3/4-inch-wide cookies. Makes about 5 dozen.

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